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Up periscope

I spent the afternoon in the university library. Amazingly, not everything is available online. Yet. My academic career is just long enough to span the transition – I started out using fat volumes of Biological Abstracts to find papers of interest, slowly and tediously. Now I use Web of Science, find everything ever published on a subject, and download it to my computer. I do manage to actually read a much smaller percentage of the articles I find, but only because there are so many – the absolute number is certainly larger. I wonder if the average number of citations in a journal article has increased in that span of time? That would be easy enough to figure out – Web of Science also lists all the papers that an article cites. (Academic mirror-gazing: checking Web of Science to see if anyone has cited one of your articles this month.)

Our library is a bit odd, old and new mashed together. The central stacks is flanked by two large, modern wings with all the amenities – large windows, comfy chairs, fresh(ish) air. And undergrads. The central stacks, in contrast, are cramped, confusing, low-ceilinged. They have always reminded me of a submarine. Have you ever toured one, or any other Navy vessel turned museum? They have narrow steep staircases between levels and low ceilings, and the stacks are strongly reminiscent of the interior of a submarine, except for the pervasive smell of old books.

My major discipline is housed in one of the new wings, with wide aisles, high ceilings and fresh air. I spend a lot of time there, although not as much as I used to before so many things became available online. It’s businesslike and professional, as you’d expect from a major university. New journal issues are prominently located, and new books in my field appear regularly. But it’s the stacks I love. The smell of old paper and bindings inspires in me the desire to read and write, to scholarly pursuits that have nothing to do with my day job. Here are the books I adore – two-hundred-year-old volumes of scholarship sitting in the open stacks, mixed in with art and literature and archaeology. My ideal life is that of one of the scholars you encounter only in tales, who has the leisure to read, think and write, and who is independently wealthy and employs a housekeeper to free her from the ordinary round of domestic tasks. Short of that, I’ve never found a way to turn my diversity of interests into something that pays the bills, unromantic as that is.

The stacks are quiet most of the year, except right before finals, when the undergrads overflow from the comfortable modern lounges into any and every available quiet space. There are windows, if not many, and it is a rare pleasure for me to be able to sit for a time at a desk by the window, equipped with a stack of volumes on medieval art, or calligraphy, or Lithuanian folklore, and browse through the pictures, and the words if I can read them, thinking of articles to write, or crafts to try, ideas rising from the paper and spilling through my brain. I know that many of these books haven’t been opened for years or decades, and may sit forgotten on the shelf for more years, but it gives me great pleasure to know that they are there, waiting, whenever I have a moment to spare for them.

1 Comment on “Up periscope”

  1. #1 Laura
    on Jan 18th, 2008 at 7:46 pm

    Smiles of agreement. There’s nothing like the information potential in hordes of books right there for your use. I really do need to get myself off to the university library at some point in the near future.